KANSAS COLLECTION BOOKS
Life at Laurel Town in Anglo Saxon Kansas by Kate Stephens

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

IV

Men who kept our farm in order came mainly from the north of Europe. Their bodies, stunted and brawny, testified how generations of forebears had labored unceasingly and suffered lack of food; calling to your mind vegetation in Arizona -- you saw they had grown to strange forms just as cacti do eking out a living in hostile environment. Even their faces were muscular, and often looked as if carved from gutta percha, or mahogany.

Best of all was Nielson, a nutty little native of the fiord land -- silent, ably executive, whose countenance now and then relaxed, when a smile would push through wrinkles about the eyes, trickle down his cheeks till it settled about the mouth; and the smile's meaningfulness made up for the face's prevalent apathy.

Nielson had a singular power. He loved animals


30

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

with an intensity I have never seen in any other human. Wooden and stolid towards the world at large, with a sort of ashamed suppression of self, this doubtless, also, a result of centuries of oppression -- a status you could not call stoic calm, for stoic calm connotes intellectual refinement -- he would, when he thought no one saw him, hug a horse, lay his head alongside a cow's neck, and squeeze a satin-bound pigling till it squealed. Or, his strange power may have come from his music. From a mere mouth-organ I never heard its equal.

Sometimes of bright Sunday mornings -- like those a Nova Scotia nurse used to describe in her poetic Scotch accent as "God's own glory is in the air this morning" -- often of a Sunday morning, Nielson would go off to the north meadow with this Pan-pipe of his, and draw forth melodies of his native land and others picked up here, walking about among the animals. Having gained their attention, or perhaps made them aware of his comradeship, he would set off marching in military gait up and down the sward.

His intimates would fall in line behind him, and he would seemingly swerve them where he chose. He would circle a high-set windmill tirelessly pumping sweet water for their drinking troughs. They would follow. He would go round an old oak, haunt of red-winged blackbirds, then down through the ravine. They after him.


31

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

First in line came Miggles, a well-bred filly with ways as graceful and coaxing as a kitten's -- for whenever you went into her close, she would hasten to you with a bowing motion of her head, and walk about with you with her nose-tip on your shoulder. If you were to explain her by human reasoning, you would say it was an odd quizzical pose of hers, that nose-tip on the shoulder business, springing from warmheartedness toward you. Equinely, also, it may have been that. When she was at it, she seemed to be pouring loving gossip in your ear, even though she spoke none other than the language of the Houyhnhnms.

Trailing in line after Miggles came Dick. Then Nick the roadster, and Betsy Bobbit, a nervous little creature with a vindictive eye and anarchistic notions in her small head. Then Fanny Fire-fly, as fine a buck-skin mare as ever laid back ears and hastened her gait if she heard a wagon ahead of her. Then other horses, four or five of them.

Next came the mules. Poor, patient beasts! For some reason they never associated with the horses. Social lines were drawn in their meadow as in the bigger world of men. You never saw a simple-minded, melancholy-faced mule hobnobbing with a sleek, blue-blooded horse. The two of them, mule and horse, fed in different patches, and seemingly endured each other's company as humans do when conventions enslave them.


32

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

After the mules the cows dragged their slow feet. Shorthorns mainly; but a couple of Jerseys and a native or two had crept in. Between these thorough-breds and plain-rangers, however, lurked no smug airs of upper and lower, no snobbery. Together they grazed and ruminated. Together they sought the watering troughs in the noontide heat. Together they huddled when the wind suddenly veered and a fierce norther struck down from the upper airs. And now they marched in mixed file to Nielson's music, yet so far along the line that their ears must have been very sensitive to catch the melodies' beat. Oddest of all, perhaps, were the sheep. Whether they have a sense of rhythm I do not know. Yet they, too, sometimes fell in the parade. Perhaps, in a silly, mutton-headed way they wanted to do as the bigger folk of the meadow did. At any rate they ambled along in Nielson's trail, heads down, as if in reflective mood, and tails sometimes wagging like mad.

But Miggles always at the head, and following close after Nielson, the conjurer, he blowing through his pipes of Pan like a west wind through a harp, and swinging his legs just as later I saw soldaten, new at the goose-step, swing theirs on the Truppen Uebungs Platz near Berlin.

How, one again wonders, could Nielson have gained this power of leadership? Through his fondling each particular friend? Or, in this marvellous world


33

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

of ours, and its mysterious life, did these people of the meadow recognize in him some sib, some creature akin, which our more evolved senses were too dull to perceive; and did they honor relationship they felt by fidelity to his will?

No one can tell. But so ran history upon the bottom-land of our farm hard by Laurel Town, when red birds whistled "What cheer?" in February; and, too, when cuckoos cried over sunlit blue grass and timothy. Under Kansas skies a minor re-acting of that wonder-worker of Greece, whose legend has brightened all centuries since the hour, when

"Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
bow themselves, when he did sing."

One September the farm and all its dependent people I was in charge of. I felt the responsibility unceasingly, and, up and about early of mornings, one day I stood studying the egotism of a peacock as he danced before his mate, in and out a row of hemlocks on the uplands by the house. His splendid attire, his strut and vanity and topping rhythm called to mind certain be- wigged, belaced, velvet-coated, silk-stockinged ancestors I had read of -- his wings sweeping at and beating the ground serving for sword-clank--

When an old Santa Fe cattle-train came grinding down the track. The train roared with exhaustion, for


34

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

it had made hundreds of miles with least possible overhauling, aiming for Kansas City stock yards and rest.

Through the early air, above the creak and rumble of worn iron, the engine screeched primeval A. Cottonwood leaves, and willow, down by the spring, quivered at the ear-splitting note; and limestone ridges, lying west, barked back A - A -A over dew-drenched grasses.

For some reason of the moment I turned from the peacock to watch the train through the morning's horizontal shafts of sunlight, the yellow clarity of the early fall.

Suddenly a door of one of the cars slid along its groove. In the opening bristled horns. Bodies bearing the horns came in sight, leaping and landing on the railway embankment.

The train rolled on towards Laurel Town just round the curve.

Texas steers! -- stunned by a leap; but free. There they stood, a bit shaky in leg, and as if endeavoring to sense their freedom. Then, seemingly mastering the fact, up went horns and heads and out went tails. Bellowing they started for the river over a stretch of corn stubble; and on to where the waters of the Kaw shot their light through the timber.

Others had seen the roisterers -- three farm-men not far from where I was standing, and they, too,


35

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

shared my alarm. Nielson, gifted with brains and best of workers; John shy as a weasel, good at his work but sulky with the sour wordless sulkiness I have seen in landmen from Scandinavia; and Ole, whose thick blood hatched megrims, which megrims hatched mental distortions, which distortions hatched lies and shirking.

All four of us, I say, eyed the raiders. Out on the plains from where those fellows came "Texas fever" had been raging, and cattle dying by thousands. The imported Shorthorns down in their yard below I grew anxious for. How happy and peaceful they looked! -- nosing golden pumpkin, crunching red-corn breakfasts, holding their heads on a line with their bodies as they munched and lifted up their eyes in gustatory satisfaction, their heavy tongues now and then lapping drooling lips. What a picture of contentment!

Texas steers might do for these Shorthorns what a boy does when he carries scarlet fever, or other infection, to his school.

Plainly enough the Texans were bent on battle. They had suffered horribly, doubtless, shut, cramped, stifled in that terrible prison, an old-fashioned cattle-car. They ached for motion, for light, air, water, food. Ceaseless roar, jar and jostle, had disordered their whole being.

There they stood in the distance, soaking their dry


36

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

hoofs in the river's edge. How long would they keep at it?

But even now they were turning about, blowing the air from their lungs and coming up to recross the railway. A field of clover lay before them. "Hungry, probably" we mused. "They will pasture."

The marauders were far hungrier for motion, for equalizing action, for stretching their legs. Energy prompted their every step. The first fence they reached they stuck their heads through and sent its wires flying as if they were tow twine.

Next the clover field lay a ravine, flooded when the river rose high; at other times empty save for rabbits and chipmunks at housekeeping, and coveys of quail and prairie-chicken hiding in its matted grass.

Through this gully the Texans charged and up its hither bank, their horns set for battle. Even at our distance we seemed to see their muscles twitching and nostrils dilated. Four hundred feet more and they might stand at the cattle-yard, their horns possibly ripping off its palings.

"Oughtn't we to shoot the raiders?" asked one of the men.

"A pity if we had to!"

"Some train-men must have seen them open the car-door," suggested another, "and now the freighter has side-tracked at Laurel Town, they'll send cowboys to corral the lot."


37

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

"Meanwhile, will the Texans disseminate the fever?"

Minutes seemed long as we reflected.

"A man's mad," said Nielson, with his hesitating wistful, old- world-soil-tiller's smile, "a man's mad sometimes goes away when he's had a full meal. Maybe it's the same with Texas steers. Let's try and see."

So the three seized corn knives, and ran to fodder stacks, and fell to work; cutting up sweet pumpkins, forking green stalks of corn at the feet of the strangers before our cattle-yard gates.

The rough steers paused and sniffed the fragrant food. One daring fellow ran out his tongue and curled and curled it back loaded with pumpkin. He was quite the runt the runt of the lot: a blind hog finding the acorns.

The steer liked the fruit. Another made the same venture. He wanted more. Another tried. Then another. Till, at last, by the end of day, say half an hour, when ponies carrying cow-punchers came racing up the main-traveled road, there down in the bottom stood a row of rugged-brown backs -- Texas steers, crunching sweet, green corn-stalks and golden pumpkins. Seemingly no steer in the world ever tasted anything so good. They could not hold from eating long whip their tails at the busy September flies.

Mild-eyed and conquered. Their feet they had softened with water. Aching throats they had wet. Empty paunches they had filled with luscious, emo-


38

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

lient pulp. The terrors of their cattle-car, its crowded space. its racking noise, they had forgotten. They went off tamely at the crack of the cowboys' whip.

From the Texans' raid no harm greater than a caging in the stone barn came to our Shorthorns, and loss of one day's sunshine on their round sides.


V

Not one American housewife, probably, but has longed for such golden girls as Homer sings, those rolling, likable lassies Hephaestus forged, according to accounts in the eighteenth book of "The Illiad" -- "good sense, and speech, and strength they had, and crafts they learned from the immortal gods."

Just such maids we craved at the house my Mother conducted. Yet Hephaestus made us nothing of the sort. Instead we had manifold human factota who hardly ever seemed golden; not infrequently, it is true, silvern; and then at times substantially brazen.

The aunties were most individual -- Negro women, more or less dark, gifted with legends and faithfulness of mammies of the old days; in every instance born and bred in slavery, the sole echo to us of whatever poetry, whatever love, and human worth may have lain in that institution. Full of strength and truth in the great turns of life; full of beautiful earnestness; trustworthy in large events, what unaccountable perversions they sometimes suffered in the small!


39

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

One "coffee-and-cream," Spanish-eyed, little body and cheery soul often called to my mind Homer's epithet of Aethopians, blameless. For downright dependability, Mary was golden. But if verity were the were the point, between what happened and what she fancied you could never tell.

A seventeenth day of March some one passed our windows wearing a sprig of green. Mother, seeing the shamrock, exclaimed, "Mary, this is St. Patrick's day! "

"Yes'm, I know," answered Mary, ready as any polyhistor, "I was here when they buried him."

"But Mary," said Mater with a smile --

"Oh, well," broke in Mary hurriedly, "if it wasn't him it was one of his representatives." Then with introspective eyes and smiling mouth, as if in mental enjoyment of the past, she added her clincher, "They had a great time."

Wish never to fail to rise to the occasion, and the tenacity of her conceptions came out again and again; pose of the utterer of oracles is not confined to the learned alone.

One evening, as I entered Mater's room to hasten Mary's recreation hour, I pointed to the red and gold of the western sky saying, "What a wonderful sunset!"

"Yes'm," answered Mary, turning her eyes so the light fell into their liquid depths, "The sun sets in the north to-night." Then with grave voice and solemn manner, "It's a sure sign of rain."


40

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

"Why, Mary, " my inexperience answered, "the sun always sets in the west."

"Well, I've noticed," rejoined Mary, with calmness and dignity, her brown-velvet hands slowly smoothing the tea-tray cover and pulling it even on all four sides, "I've noticed that before a storm the sun always sets in the north."

To answer would contravene ex cathedra utterance. Like all dogmatists Mary thought that insisting on a thing made it true.

The dear old bully shuffled off toward the kitchen, from the distance coming her song:

"My soul is like a new tin pan,
Lord, grease it with thy grace;
And rub, and rub, and rub, dear Lord,
Till I can see thy face."

A son-in-law, whom Mary proudly described as "professor on the banjo," used to come to the kitchen-door days when her pay was due and ask her for her wages -- this ne'er-do-well taught her words and melodies.

Mary expressed other striking cosmological notions, stoutly asserting "the moon's a woman, wife of the sun; haven't you noticed how changeable she is?"

Which recalls, if we may wander so far, a fancy of another old-time slave. Wondering at the beauty of the world, and reasoning upon it with all the knowledge his poor life could muster, he told me, with solem-


41

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

nity of countenance showing intellectual effort back of it, that the stars were knot-holes and gimlet-holes in the floor of heaven, and their light is the glory of paradise shining through. That their light is the glory of paradise shining through, none but an unimaginative scientist would deny.

Born to the purple of a house-slave near New Orleans, Mary practiced an unconscious snobbery -- snobbery is commonly unconscious -- and looked down on field-workers, such as Peter Vinegar; whose ear so loved a sonorous phrase that it led him to name his heir -- (the child did not long survive), Americus Disgustus Dapoleon Vinegar.

Of all our aunties, most characterful, I think was Phyllis, plumb full of racy expressions, a natural narrator, and never tired telling her experiences, in slavery and out. Through it all, her eyes had been wide open, ears listening, judgment sane. I still see her serious, yellow-brown face, high shoulders covered with gingham of a generous old-time-plantation cut; and her brave hands freckled a deeper brown, in hours of rest placidly folded in her ample lap. Such speaking hands! What work they had done for field, for house, for pickaninny! She was not a clever, slender, golden girl of the Hephaestean type, but her face and figure might have served as model for a nineteenth century Moroni or Frans Hals.

"Yes'm, I had sixteen children. My mother had


42

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

only twelve. But my aunt had fifty-nine grandchildren before she died." Slavery believed in breeders.

After their shackles had fallen, she and her husband had gone to that legendary country once called "the Great American Desert." "But dust and sand storms was so bad we feared the children would lose their way to school, and in Winter snow druv so heavy they couldn't go. Why, sometimes it was so cold that fat hogs froze halfway down the back, and we had to kill and ship 'em on to a Kansas City soap factory.

"We kept warm by burning cornstalks and hay -- had burners large enough to burn a bale of hay, and three bales lasted one day. What was the burners made of? Sheet iron; and they covered the stove and burnt underneath. We cooked in the oven. Why, we ran mills two years by burning hay, had two men feeding all the time. For summer fires we used to go to the corn fields and pick up a load of stalks.

"One thirtieth of April oats was in and up, when a hail-storm come and poisoned the ground -- packed it so nothin' didn't grow that year. The storm killed chickens, too, and sucking pigs; and my son-in-law went out to Cheyenne bottom and gathered a wagonload of dead sea-gulls and all kinds of birds; sea-gulls come before a storm and rise down and rise up and fly graceful-like. "

Full of the traditions and beautiful lore of folk


43

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

who have lived in and by the field, "Taint no use denyin'," she once declared, "that chick-weed grows where chickens is, or have been. And you always find mullein where sheep feed; and iron weed springs up in a horse pasture. It's as true as day."

Aunt Phyllis sang many a melody in the velvet accent of her race -- songs she had caught up in youth when one warehouse stood where Kansas City now stands, and "wa'n't nobody in western Missouri but Mormons and Indians." The humor of her songs forecast that of present-day vaudeville. One, possibly referring to the company of a packet plying between St. Louis and Westport, Aunt Phyllis usually prefaced by proclaiming: "There's more married now than's gettin' along well;"

"Four score and ten a verse,
Not a penny in a purse,
Something must be done for us,
Poor old maids!

We're all of the Desman crew,
Dressed in yellow, pink, and blue,
Nursin' cats is all we do,
Poor old maids!

To the devil we do go,
The bachelors will be there, too,
Each of us will have a beau,
Poor old maids!


44

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

Another Westport song of Aunt Phyllis's exhorted to temperance:

"I went down street the other night.
And there by the corner there lie an old friend;
I spoke to him, but 't wa'n't no use,
For he knew no more of me than a goose.
So, come and jine our cold-water band,
Come and jine our cold-water band,
And we'll unite hand in hand."

Still another referred to political divisions:

"The moon was shinin' silver-bright,
The stars with glory crowned the night,
High on that limb that same old coon
Was singin' to hisself this tune;

Get out the way, you're all unlucky,
Clear the track for ole Kentucky;
Fiery, southern, brave Calhoun,
Who beats the fox, and fears the coon;
Let that track be dry or mucky,
We'll clear the track for ole Kentucky;
Get out the way, you're all unlucky,
Clear the track for ole Kentucky."

Then Aunt Phyllis had other verses worthy of a Mother Goose anthology:

"De raccoon hab a ringy tail,
De possum's tail is bare;
De rabbit hab no tail at all,
But a little bit o' bunch o' hair."


45

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

"De possum and de raccoon
Went up de tree a-fightin';
De turkey-hen she scratch so hard
De gobbler died a laughin'."

"Possum up a gum stump.
Raccoon in de hollow;
Pretty gal at Dinah's house
Fat as she can wallow. Possum shank a'roastin',
Wid de marrow in de bone;
Pretty gal at Dinah's house --
And Dinah ain't to home."

"Dey tie my feet, and tie my hand,
And dey lay me down upon de sand;
De skeeters come and eat my clothes,
And bite my ears and tickle my nose;
Dey leab me dar till I weep and moan,
And swear I'll let dem pullets alone."




VI

Answering a message that our Mother would welcome a strong, trustworthy woman for cleaning -- Mater tabooed the word servant because of its old associations and the hostilities the word engenders -- answering this call for a household orderly, sent to a tenement where folks from Sweden met, there appeared as odd a compound as you would be apt to find in all the human lees Europe has cast through Castle Garden or Ellis Island; Mary Peterson, stunted in stature, a trifle bent in shoulders, as thirty-six-years-


46

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

old workers we Americans import are apt to be, but having a skin textured and colored like a blush rose, hair as fine as floss-silk, and of the dye of gold, eyes small, deep-set, a tip-tilted nose and a protruding chin; such countenance as legend has given witches and other psychically abnormal creatures.

A strange and picturesque figure! Yet, in the analysis of Kansas sunlight, winning; perhaps by a broad kindliness, even if somewhat of the elf, somewhat of the fool, somewhat of the sorceress shone in the face.

Mother engaged her at once. Smiling she turned and trudged off to town for her clothes, later setting forth these riches -- underwear of the thickest linen we had ever seen, heavy, woolen stockings, skirts woven of wool wadded in so firmly that it made the cloth clumsy and stiff.

But under those terrible wearables such a willing heart! Mater held her back a day or two till she had clad her in light cottons fitting our climate, and then the new recruit fell to her adept's scouring and cleaning. Learning our language after her own methods, she would point to some object and ask, "Dis?" And when one answered, for instance, "tongs," or "table," she would go on with her work, repeating to herself "tongs," "table," till she had driven a furrow through her brain and planted the word in it.

To distinguish her from a household-helper already established, she must have another name than


47

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

Mary. "Venus," we children wickedly insisted. But when Mater explained the difficulty of having two Marys in one house, and asked the next comer's wishes, suggesting Peterkin, or Peter, for her special ownership, she delightedly said either would be right; and Peter and Peterkin she was through all the remaining time.

Eighteen years, off and on, she stayed with us. Truth compels "off and on." She had an adventurous head, possibly you might say she had intellectual curiosity working behind the weird, elfin light that shone in her eyes. Recurrently, after a year or two of domestic ease and routine, a restlessness would seize her and she must off to some town whose name had struck her fancy. A few months never failed to bring her repentant to the door, begging to be taken back, averring "no place so good as dis."

Among the Swedes who came over about her time, she soon got a reputation for riches. What her thrift saved, and it was much of her earnings, she turned into twenty dollar gold pieces; which she hastened to lay in crevices of her bedstead. This method of banking seemed so facile and clever that she confided her device to the cook, whom the hand of the Lord has stained ebon. Then, a few days after, she cried out that she had lost an eagle. A wave of war rolled one minute from the kitchen.

When Mater heard of the safe-deposit, and of the confidences, she told Peterkin she must lock up her


48

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

treasures and herself keep the key. So Peter bought a trunk pasted over with yellow-brown paper and rimmed with sheet iron. But it had the dignity and individuality of a lock, and delighted her simple soul beyond telling.

Still, riches engender sorrow. No surcease has ever come to that law; older even than the days of Solomon. Nor did it fail now in Peter's experience. Her savings, not her many virtues, brought suitors. Stolid Swedes, whom she met at her country-people's houses, where on Sundays she sought social refreshment -- silent, sour-visaged fellows they looked as they shuffled towards our house, came courting.

In their first visit, say on a rainy Sunday afternoon, they evinced their interest and confidence in her, Peter afterwards told us, by subtly suggesting that her years warranted a home of her own. What female of the human species would withstand such a hint! At their second coming, say a short call in a week-day afternoon, they broached the subject of marriage. On the third they completed their proposal, and asked the loan of a gold-piece, or two.

Peterkin's weird eyes could not see the meaning of it, and through several years vari-colored scoundrels played with her earnings; not to speak of her affections.

At last appeared the slickest of them all -- more refined than the others in looks, with better clothing,


49

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

better shoe-leather, longish hair and a weary, sickly, dissatisfied face. "Bottinson" paid his sweetheart many visits, and wheedled her out of several hundred dollars before he went away and never came back.

Bottinson had finesse. With his fading into the unexplorable ended Peter's faith and trust in legal tenders for men. They had hurt her terribly. But she was game, poor, brave soul! -- and when speaking to those who had known her history, and theirs, she was never quite done joking over their lies, and how slyly they had mulcted her purse.

Yet, Bottinson's desertion was nothing to what another day brought. A norther blew bleakly, fine-pelleted snow fell, but Peter flung herself upon a wood-pile and lay on its rough edges far into the dark, refusing all body-nourishment and soul-comfort, conscious only of despair.

Back in Sweden she had left a father, sister and brother living together in the little cottage they owned. Possibly all the family were afflicted with Peterkin's mental queernesses. At any rate that winter-day in Kansas, letters and papers came telling how her sister had one night made milk-porridge for father and brother, and in the porridge had boiled matches. The two men, tired and hungry from work in excessive frosts, ate a hearty supper. Both died before morning.

Their bodies were laid in such graves as the country-folk in Sweden prepare during summer for pos-


50

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

sible needs when frosts harden the ground. The sister dwelt alone. Yet not alone. The conscience of her soul awoke. Her father stood before her and told her of her sin. She could not withstand the accusing spirit. In a fortnight she set out for town to make known how she had coveted ownership so far as to kill her men-folks to whom the law had given the little house and land. A judge took testimony referring to the strength of her mind, and finally confined her for life in the city, confiscating her freehold to the crown.

Out in a Kansas blizzard the old story of crime not striking the criminal alone was enacting. Innocent Peterkin, thousands of miles from the tragedy, sat in the numbing cold, wringing her hands and now and then, paralyzed by grief and shame, uttering cries like a wounded animal. Her father and brother dead! -- dead in a way that blood of hers befouled itself!

In her agony dreams of paying a visit to Sweden and carrying help to the old home vanished. Ever after Sweden was to her a forbidden name, and forbidden land. American she wanted to become; in many ways did become. Even the white light of her birthland faded from her face; in course of years her skin tanned to a brown, and the exquisite gold of her hair turned to ash shades.

Peterkin had characteristics we Americans admire in the land-folks of northern Europe. She had simple, direct honesty. She had self-restraint. Considerations


51

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

of others' rights and needs had socialized her. She was conscious of, and felt pride in maintaining her self- reliance; pride, also, in doing her work finely and with great cleanliness. Consequently she had severity of bearing human may easily be good-natured if he has nothing to do but be good-natured; if he has no ideal to serve. Honesty, self-reliance, cleanliness and even severity were in keeping with her simple, cool, rationally tinctured religious phases.

Perhaps ancestral-seeress proclivities got hold of her after we left Laurel Town. At any rate she passed to the emotionalism of the Salvation Army. Her zeal to labor for her new friend led to her hawking about the War Cry. Or perhaps the Army set her the task, recognizing the quaintness of her face and figure and her ready tongue.

A favorite song of hers in her unregenerate days she would begin with

"Shoo, fly!
Bod-der me!"

This now gave way to another evolved in the enthusiasm of the barracks, leastwise a favorite at that time;

"There are no flies on you;
There are no flies on me;
There are no flies on Jesus Christ."

the song went on, triumphantly concluding with,

"So far as we can see."


52

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

Begging she learned to benefit others. The habit remained when her fervor for the Army cooled. At last we heard that she was meeting people of a morning with "Gi'e a penny!" Astonishing! yet one vagary of a life of mental wanderings.

Society and Peterkin were now at variance. Indeed society had never understood Peter. Doubtless society did not understand those old seeresses who were her ancestors. But society did not longer uphold Peter. Nor did Peter uphold society. The lonely, old soul knew she was down and out. But she kept a room for herself, to which she took wood she gathered, and garments given in charity; till, finally, under an August sun she fell unconscious in an alley.

A singular compound! Faithful as a dog, and yet at times treacherous; perhaps the treachery developed when her mental weaknesses recurred. Keenly honest in her dealings, and repeatedly the dupe of thieves and their absurd presences. Proud of herself and her good name, yet at last a daily beggar. Kindly, quaint, independent, joying in life with a very genuine joy. A child of old northmen, and, still more clearly, old northwomen.


VII

Those I have here bespoken the amplitude of our farm next Laurel Town embraced. Naturally we had neighbors not of the farm, the greater number known


53

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

as "mud-floor Missourians," natives of the richly gifted state to the east, who retained such liking for their old habits that, report said, no matter how roomy the house their affluence had come to afford, they loved best to live so that their bare feet might press the maternal soil.

Such tales seemed to us very curious. Also doubtful. Experience confirmed the truth of at least one.

I dropped a rain-coat from the phaeton, and having heard that the family of a square brick house hard by had picked it up, I went to their front door and rang the bell. In vain. But I so wanted to get back my coat that I walked toward the rear of the house seeking another entrance. A pair of dogs sallied from the elms' shade. Their bark brought to a cellar door the tall, bare-footed, Indian-featured mistress of the manse. Behind her opened a large room, all comfortably floored with Mother Earth.

When I told my errand, the dame handed me the coat, accepted my thanks with a nod of the head, and said, "We knew the cloak was you-all's 'cause nobody hereabouts has one like it. But we thought we'd keep it till you-all come for it."

Missourians living in Kansas still retained no little of the hatred they inherited from days* when Kansas was the storm centre of national politics, and her his-


54

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

tory a fore-scene of the War Between the States. They held themselves far from association with what their ginger speech called "the damned Yankees."

From their point of view, seemingly, those born in Missouri reached on birth the summit of earthly excellence and glory. The same sort of self-gratulation I have since heard in others instance, among people born in Boston, Massachusetts, or its neighboring Cambridge. To live in a place consecrated by noble deeds is a great thing. But somehow our human minds can not help asking if such deeds should not quicken to like performance, not to self-complacent vaunting, the closed mind and folded hand, silly criticism of, or weak hostilities towards those born, or living, else- where. After all, through the centuries human nature has changed little -- a presumption of superiority, even of moral superiority, based on place of birth did not die out of the world when dwellers of cities famed and opulent aligned against people from a little town called Nazareth.

Another of our neighbors stood far from the Missouri exclusives.

* "It is evident that the time to try men's souls has now come in Kansas. The villains who have gone there from Missouri, with clubs, bowie-knives and revolvers, to over-ride the genuine settlers, and establish slavery at whatever cost, must now be met determinedly." Herald of Freedom, Lawrence, Wednesday, June 9, 1855.

"No week has ever passed without . . . insult and contumely thrown at our people by our nearest neighbors, the Missourians," wrote the author of Six Months In Kansas, in November, 1855.


55

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

"With a porch at his door both for shelter and shade too,
     As the sunshine or rain may prevail;
And a small spot of ground for the use of the spade too,
     With a barn for the use of the flail,"

Dr. Hartmann, a German physician educated in Austria, now a trifle weary of this busy world, sought retirement.

Traditions of gay Vienna, however, its dolled-up women, its wine, its song, spectred his life, and when handsome girls came visiting us, the Doctor would sometimes invite us to an afternoon hour at his house.

Smiling, evidently gratified at our coming, he would welcome us at the front of his vine-covered porch.

As for us, we were like a flock of wrens, or blue-birds, chattering about the flowers, trees and what-not till we found Kladderadatsch, Fliegende Blätter and other illustrated German papers lying on tables of the veranda. Then, before we were fairly settled, the housekeeper would appear bringing German kuchen heaped on a plate, and German linen napkins about a yard square that we would half unfold and make do for plate and serviette.

At this juncture the Doctor, delighting in his hostship, would set forth a bottle of wine, wine he himself had made from his own grapes. There was the vine-yard, he would point it out, not far from the porch. Of a beautiful claret color and sour, the wine saved


56

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

little of the grapes' aroma; yet it was the real Bacchic inheritance, the way our ancestors, through thousands of years, kept fruit-acids for their winter health.

The Doctor, reaching a bottle towards our glasses, would meet our protest, "Just a spoonful, Doctor, to taste your vintage; you know we don't drink wine," and some feasting tale we had at hand, say a primitive legend from "Al-Mustatraf;"

"In the first days of the world, after Adam had planted the grapevine, Iblis (Satan, that is, may he be cursed!' sacrificed over it a peacock.

"And the vine absorbed its blood.

"Soon the leaves opened out, when Iblis, ever busy, offered up a monkey.

"The vine drank the blood.

"Later when the plant put forth its clusters, the Evil One led to it a lion for oblation.

"And the vine took up its blood.

"Then, at last, after the clusters ripened, Iblis drew near a swine and made sacrifice.

"The swine's blood the vine also drank.

"So now it is that he who drinketh of wine is first thrilled with the proud walk and parade of the peacock. Then, after a little, he becomes as gay and playful as a monkey. Later on the strength of the wine mounting, he grows wild and fierce, even as the form of a lion. And finally overcome, he falls and wallows


57

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

in the mire as swine do, and sleeps unknowing mockery and derision."

"A very bad story!" the Doctor would assure us, and fall to regaling us with tales of European wine-presses, and of the great health and long life of drinkers of bottled-sunshine; after a time seizing a decanter.

"No, no, thank you, Doctor, no more, no more. You must send specimens of your wine to your old home and win fame for it."

"Now, my dear young lady," the Doctor would answer, still smiling and turning his head slightly on one side, gradually tipping the bottle; "Vy not? Ein man does not valk on vun leg. Does he now?" -- fastening us with his eye, but all the while pouring wine in our various glasses. "Tell me, does ein man valk on vun leg? You say you will valk home. Vell, no vun can valk on vun glass vine; immer zwei. Und noch eins, a cane you know." And by that time he would have brimmed our cups.

The real German Gemuthlichkeit, you see. Its impressive Allgemeinheit drove me one day even to by-singing the great Goethe:

Kennst du das Land? -- wo die Lebtucben blüh'n,
Mit dunklem Bier die külen Steine glüh'n,
Ein sanfter Wind vom grünen Garten weht,
Pfannkucben riecht, und hoch Wurst-suppe steht?
Kennst du das Land?

The Doctor later on married a tiny, sweet-faced


58

LIFE AT LAUREL TOWN

German widow. From the beginning she looked thoroughly subdued -- recalling to my mind a sentiment about his wife from the Memoirs of an old New England preacher, somewhat known about Boston for his bullyragging; "She was a woman of incomparable meekness, towards myself especially."

The Doctor married. Yea; but his bachelor habits of issuing sultanic orders persisted; and the sequent life of himself and the winsome, wee lady did not brim with joy. At last the wife left their domicile; and she, and the Doctor also, sought lawyers and begged for divorce proceedings.

Making ready to go before the court, their legal men one morning found a meeting necessary, and each by chance had his client with him. The lady and her husband were therefore in adjoining rooms. Each knew the other's nearness.

A clerk passing from one room to the other carelessly left the door open. Defendant and plaintiff sat facing each other.

Moved by the sad figure opposite -- wondering perhaps who had carried in his coffee and rolls that morning -- the little plaintiff, her love again aflame, sprang from her chair crying; Mein Mann! Mein Mann! and flying with outstretched arms towards the doorway.

Meine Frau! Meine Frau! returned the defendant, his heart full of a sentiment he could not uproot, and rushing through the entrance to the second room.


59

ON A FARM NEAR LAUREL TOWN

Their impact told the lawyers that the case of Hartmann vs. Hartmann must forthwith be taken from the docket. Nothing remained but to felicitate the couple upon the settlement of their grievances, and wish their household unbroken happiness all years to come.



Previous Next
KanColl  Return to Books